THE NEW ORDER BY KAREN E. BENDER
Karen E. Bender’s new story collection is steeped in the present political moment, with an eye to our future. Our cultural corrosion—especially our denial of sexual assault and gun violence—impacts Bender’s female narrators in quiet, resounding ways. The young protagonist of “This Is Who You Are” develops anxiety as she copes with knowledge of the sexual abuse of a classmate and the bombing of a Jewish school, made personal by her identification with one of the bombing victims. “History always felt like it was breathing softly behind us,” she says.
The New Order delivers deceptively straightforward reflections on the mundane, as the reader is drawn into worlds much like our own. In “On a Scale of One to Ten,” a small family moves to an unnamed Asian city to escape a stalker back home, only for their daughter to be bullied at school: “We stood under the sky, a fragile blue tarp; beneath it, we felt almost invisible. Most people were invisible to other people, except when others saw them and wanted to harm them.” Cruelty is not always immediately evident in Bender’s stories, though its consequences echo. In “The Department of Happiness and Reimbursement,” a government initiative to pay complainants in the workforce for their silence backfires when a woman facing harassment refuses to barter away her pain for monetary compensation. The narrator’s final, plaintive thought captures the essence of the collection’s wist and cynicism, hope and hopelessness. She sits on the discarded couch of a woman whose life has been obliterated because she spoke out, and wonders “what would happen to all of us.”
— Review by Sara Ramey